Lately you’ve been taking an interest in sports.
I’ve been afraid of this for quite some time. I haven’t been afraid for your safety or anything like that. No, I’m afraid of becoming the stereotypical “Sports Dad.”
Let me first say that I want you to be competitive. I’m not very competitive, so that’s a hard one for me to know how to instill. I’m a tad vindictive, which can come off as competitive, but there’s a clear difference. I like watching some teams (The Denver Broncos), and some people (Daniel Snyder), lose. If that means I have to win, so be it. I don’t want that for you- I want you to enjoy competing, and pushing yourself to be better, win or lose. Does that have to come within the paradigm of athletics? No, but on that note…
I want you to be athletic. I’m not saying I have a need for you to be a naturally gifted athlete. One of my best friends has actually sworn off the idea of even having children unless he finds a woman over 6’2″ he can enter into a contract with to sire one child, destined to have a height advantage over all the other kids. That’s not me at all. I just want the three of you to have a respect for the performance one can achieve athletically when testing the boundaries of those natural gifts that you were given.
I want you to run, jump, climb, throw, lift, kick and wrestle. Make use of your body, and have fun doing it whether or not you have an extra-curricular affiliation with any sports teams. I played basketball, football, ran track and wrestled for school teams. To me, none of that ever equaled just dribbling a ball around in my neighborhood, and seeing how many times I could dribble between my legs before the ball inevitably went off my foot and rolled under a passing car.
So yeah, I do want you to be a competitive athlete… but I’m not sure I have the want or know how to be the father of one. You see, I was a player, a coach, and a referee, and as of now, my job is to write about youth sports. Sports parents can be awful, and I’m afraid of becoming one of the bad ones. That’s why, to this point in your lives, every time any of you have even so much as picked up a ball, I’ve slapped it out of your hands.
Youth sports are a lot like the United States government. The kids are the representatives, and the parents are the lobbyists who shelled out the resources to get them a spot in office. As is all to common with lobbyists, they often have an agenda that wins out when put up against the will of the people, or in the case of this metaphor, the good of the team.
When I was 20 years old, I received a call to referee a YMCA soccer match between two second-grade teams. The scheduled ref was ill, so I gladly stepped in to call the game. At one point, under circumstances that I can’t clearly recall, I had disallowed a goal. A few of the parents were upset, but one in particular kept making inferences that I was overdue for a visit with an optometrist, or at least that’s what I think he meant by “blind idiot.” Eventually, I stopped the game and informed him that if his commentary from the sideline continued to distract me from ensuring the players had a positive experience, he’d have to spend the rest of the game waiting for his family in the parking lot. Looking embarrassed, he sulked for a moment before turning to the other parents on the sideline and saying “at least we know his ears work.”
I kicked him out.
When the game ended, my bosses at the YMCA were waiting for me on the sidelines, wearing half-grins and looking as if they had just received quite the verbal tongue-lashing. It turns out, the man I kicked off the sideline was the head of recreation for the entire county. The entire freaking county. That experience has stuck with me for the last ten years. If the head of recreation can’t keep himself from abusing a referee when his EIGHT YEAR OLD is put at a disadvantage on the field, how then hell am I supposed to trust myself to not abrasively meddle in the athletic affairs of my own kids?
I interact with sports
lobbyists parents on a weekly basis. Some of it is positive. Way too much of it is negative. We all want the best for our kids, and for some, making sure our kids have the best means we become their agent, manager, publicist, chauffeur, dietician, and assistant. In my experience, all these kids probably need their parents to be is an encouraging example of deference toward the coaching staff, opposing team’s parents, referees, and even us media types (and also, they still probably need a chauffeur).
The thing I’m worried about most when it comes to putting you in youth sports isn’t that you won’t put forth the effort and make me proud- it’s that I won’t do my part by being the type of parent you are proud to have rooting for you.
I don’t want to be the father that other parents are uncomfortable sitting next to in the stands, or that refs rush to their cars after the game to avoid.
I don’t wan’t to be the father who spends the car ride home passive-aggressively questioning the coach’s motives for not making you a focal point of the game plan.
I don’t want to be the father who creates anonymous social media profiles and goads media members into giving you publicity (yes, this one happens ALL the time).
I don’t want to be the father that keeps a tally of every dime I’ve ever spent on training and equipment, and throws the total out there as guilt-laden motivation every time you feel like taking a day off.
I don’t want to be the dad who makes you feel like you let me down when colleges aren’t lining up to offer you tuition, room and board to be the next great… based on my height and build in high school, I’m gonna say “punter.”
At this point, you might be thinking to yourself “then don’t be any of those things.”
I wish it was that simple.
The optimist in me likes to think that these dads that call me all hours of the day and night to explain to me why their kid is better than some other kid, or tell me the reason their child has underperformed is the fault of the coaches, also at one point believed that they weren’t going to be “that guy.” I really just want to believe that it’s as inevitable a transformation as a Hobbit going crazy over the ring of power. That way, I can at least make an excuse for these dads- because what kind of parent would actually choose to poison their child’s athletic experiences over a desire to vicariously accomplish goals that they didn’t themselves achieve?
At the end of the day I know that I can’t keep you from chasing your own goals in an attempt to keep myself from forcing you to chase mine. Some of the best wisdom I ever received about fatherhood is to make sure that I only make decisions based on what I DO want to happen, and never what I DON’T want to happen. What I do want for you is to value the privilege you have to pursue athletic competition, whether in an organized fashion, or as recreation. What I want for myself is to be there to enjoy it.
My pledge to you is that I’ll challenge myself to pursue excellence as a “sports dad” in the same way I hope you choose to pursue excellence in whatever sport you pursue. You keep your eye on the ball, and so will I.